- Bleak Liberalism by Amanda Anderson
For decades, liberalism has served as a constant foil for the theoretical and political position-taking of the academic Left. Associated with “two faulty ideals, the autonomous individual and the free market” (19), liberalism has been frequently treated as coextensive with humanism, capitalism, even modernity itself, while also routinely being demeaned as strictly procedural, a politics abstracted from social life, embodied experience, and ethical commitment. Pushing back against these lasting misrepresentations of the liberal tradition in literary and cultural studies, and building on her incisive theoretical interventions in The Way We Argue Now, Amanda Anderson’s latest book shows how liberalism’s political thought and character has consistently demonstrated a reflexive awareness of the social, moral, and psychological limitations of its guiding principles of deliberative debate and procedural rationality. The title Bleak Liberalism principally denotes a period of acute self-criticism in the 1930s and ’40s, when intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, Lionel Trilling, and Arthur Schlesinger responded to the catastrophes of midcentury history by insisting upon the tragic constraints facing all rational argument and collective action. For Anderson, this postwar liberal era, “bleak, chastened, and invested in complex aesthetic expression of its aims,” clarifies salient tendencies in political and philosophical liberalism that reach at least as far back as J. S. Mill and L. T. Hobhouse (20).
For readers of this journal, recovering a more complex understanding of liberalism’s political character may be most compelling for the way it enables Anderson to rediscover “the formal and conceptual complexity involved in literary engagements with liberal thinking” (2). Dividing her attention between nineteenth-century Britain and twentieth-century America, Anderson shows how novels from Dickens’s Bleak House to Ellison’s Invisible Man negotiate universalizing aspirations for rationalism, procedural argument, and abstract equality, and an ethos dwelling in moral uncertainty, existential complexity, and interpretive ambiguity. These novels capture a constitutive liberal tension between abstract theory and lived experience that appears not only in their direct representations of political commitment but also in their narrative form.
Anderson’s chapter on Victorian “High Realism,” her longest and strongest, moves commandingly through seminal novels by Dickens, Trollope, and Eliot, unpacking their twin urges to critique systemic inequality and to privilege individual character. Anderson traces this textual ambivalence between individual moral agency and a “bleak diagnosis” of social inequality by dwelling upon points of friction between [End Page 559] first and third person narrative (48). In Bleak House, Dickens’s third-person narrative famously “gives the effect of an airless world ruled by ever-present forms of diffuse power effects, strategic rationality, and corrosive self-interest,” while Esther’s personal narrative prioritizes “the importance of moral agency based on love’s insight” (49). Focusing on characters who mediate these narratives, such as the doctor Woodcourt and the illiterate Jo, Anderson shows how Dickens explores “the estranging but also enabling moral consequences of attempting to think the moral and the sociological perspective in relation to one another” (56). In her reading of The Way We Live Now, Anderson identifies honesty as Trollope’s “crux virtue” (57), one privileged within an aristocratic tradition of manners yet also serving as an ideal of “truth-telling” for liberal critique. While Trollope insists upon an individual ethos that can pursue “disagreement without disagreeableness” (62), his novel finally reveals that “systemic dishonesty can’t adequately be answered by, or reformed as, characterological honesty” (59). Finally, with Eliot’s Middlemarch, Anderson shows how the apparent reconciliation of Will and Dorothea through marriage “only lights up a key discrepancy between ethics and politics” (76), an operative liberal tension between Will’s commitment to “principles of justice and right” on behalf of vulnerable populations and Dorothea’s commitment to individual sympathy, self-actualization, and moral being (75).
Continuing her study of literary realism, Anderson’s third chapter reconsiders the “Political Novel” by exploring “the role of argument within the tradition of the novel of manners” (78). Through readings of Dickens’s Hard Times, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, and E. M...